Veteran suicides — here’s how we help
President Donald Trump recently signed into law Senate Bill 785, a bipartisan legislation aimed at improving health care for and reducing suicide rates among American veterans.
The bill isn’t a magic bullet that will solve all of our problems, but it provides us with an excellent opportunity to talk about suicide among veterans, an important topic that is too rarely in the spotlight.
Strengths of the bill include increased access to telehealth for veterans living in rural areas and the establishment of a grant program to facilitate Veterans Affairs (VA) partnerships with community agencies to improve the identification of at-risk veterans.
With Senate Bill 785 serving as a jumping-off point, here’s how we as a country can move forward in helping reduce the number of veterans who die by suicide: we need more than legislation and we need societal changes.
One of the key ideas that needs to change is for our society to actively share the responsibility for the health and wellbeing of our veterans. There must be a common mindset when it comes to tackling veteran suicide.
Too often, there’s the thinking that this is an issue that the VA or the Department of Defense (DOD) need to “fix.” It’s another example of citizens, organizations and other agencies looking at those two agencies and saying, “Someone else should be responsible.”
These are our veterans. They defended our nation on our behalf, and we really need to have a shared sense of responsibility for their health. I would love to live in a country where we no longer say, “It’s not my problem,” but rather work together to support the men and women who chose to fight for us.
Another important misconception is the stereotype that the veterans who are at risk of suicide are only service members who’ve come home from overseas changed by some kind of traumatic experience in war.
In reality, the truth is that the majority of service members who die by suicide have never been deployed. I’ve published multiple studies on this, showing that issues other than deployment play a much bigger role.
The misconception, however, remains.
The general population should know that it’s not just those who’ve been deployed that are at risk of suicide. We shouldn’t stereotype veterans who never spent time deployed. They’re all in need of support.
For a piece of legislation to make a major impact, it will require a multi-pronged approach to truly address our veteran suicide problem. Effective legislation would need to address mental health solutions, therapy and treatment, firearm availability and financial assistance.
The first two of those two issues are largely self-explanatory. Our health care institutions need to be better equipped to provide excellent mental health care to veterans while also identifying effective treatments and therapies that are supported by research and data. Research shows that medical insurance and health care coverage is correlated with lower suicide rates, highlighting the importance of access to care beyond the VA.
The third, however, regularly goes unaddressed in veteran suicide conversations. According to our data, 70 percent of veterans who die from suicide use a firearm, compared to 55 percent of the general population.
This is an obvious indication that any legislation designed to lower the suicide rate of veterans needs to address firearms. More research is required, and firearm issues can be challenging, but encouraging and incentivizing safe firearm storage or restricting access are ideas that need to be explored.
Finally, there is a clear connection between minimum wage levels and suicide rates. Even a $1 increase in the minimum wage of a given state results in a decrease in the suicide rate of that state. The same conversation can include housing and wealth disparities, which also equate to suicide rates.
These are concepts that would likely be tackled by a larger piece of legislation than something targeted toward veterans, but it’s crucial nonetheless. These issues — lack of health care, limited resources, lack of housing, to name a few — increase stress and lead to suicide, whether among veterans or the general public.
My team and I have several studies underway right now to improve the effectiveness of treatments for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicidal thoughts, and to identify differences in suicide risk factors among firearm owners.
We’re also testing new ways to provide treatment to veterans in need, such as speeding up recovery times by providing therapy on a daily instead of weekly basis and developing and testing treatments delivered via smartphone apps.
It would be a very positive outcome if this bill leads to continued conversations about this important topic. In the future, hopefully experts will continue to be consulted about how to support our veterans, and we’ll continue making progress that saves lives.